Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Pioneer of Film and Television

By David Luhrssen
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On June 6, 1894 a motion picture was projected for the first time onto a screen for public viewing, as opposed to the private peep-show experience. The public was small, the family and friends of inventor Charles Francis Jenkins (1867-1934); the setting was the interior of a jewelry store in Richmond, Indiana; the event drew local attention but was eclipsed by breakthroughs the following year by the Lumiere brothers in Paris. Although the Frenchmen are sometimes credited with moving the movies out of the nickelodeon and into the cinema, Jenkins’ projection system became important after Thomas Edison, the father of America’s movie industry, purchased it. The Indiana entrepreneur has usually been relegated to footnotes ever since.

Donald G. Godfrey aims to give that man his own chapter in history. His biography, C. Francis Jenkins: Pioneer of Film and Television (University of Illinois Press), shows Jenkins tirelessly tinkering in the nascent fields of film and “radio pictures” (before the term “television” took hold). Just as Edison and the Lumieres eclipsed him in cinema, Philo T. Farnsworth is the name that clings to the pre-history of TV. Jenkins is usually referenced as that other guy. Why is he so overlooked?

Godfrey never really answers the question, offering only that declining health and the Great Depression cut short his experiments in television, which began by transmitting still photos and silhouettes and wrestled with problems of low resolution. Dwelling often on technical matters, the picture that emerges from Godfrey’s biography is of a man never far from his slide rule and workbench. Jenkins was granted patents for bottle-filling machines and steam-generator flues, and new forms of ball bearings and paper packaging, as well as the machinery behind motion pictures. He may have been too busy to be a media celebrity or too eclectic for the historians. C. Francis Jenkins: American Inventor might have been more to the point, locating him amidst a generation of inventors who opened new worlds through mechanical aptitude and imagination.

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